Whether you are exploring New York City or Villefranche-sur-Mer, it is often very difficult to distinguish between an overpriced tourist trap and a Don’t-Miss-It, bang-for-your-buck grazing spot. However, certain patterns exist that can help you to differentiate between these two categories, if you know how to recognize them. Things to look for:
Look for restaurant menus written in the local language, rather than English.
Often, overpriced and overrated restaurants will target tourists by printing menus in English and hanging them in visible spots in front of the restaurant. The words you recognize will excite you and your appetite, pulling you into the trap. Restaurants preferred by the locals (more authentic cuisine) will generally have menus printed in the local language, (although they may also offer English menus upon request.)
Look for restaurants off the beaten path.
This may seem obvious, but when you are hungry and travel-weary, logic tends to slip away. Remember: restaurants on main streets or close to tourist attractions (think Tower of Pisa) are specifically targeting tourist clientele who are willing to spend more money for a mediocre entree. Instead, walk a couple extra miles to the small, out-of-the-way roads and alleys and take a peek inside the restaurants you find there.
Look for where the locals are eating.
Crowds of people seated in front of a restaurant means that the restaurant is top-notch, right? Wrong. Examine the type of people who seem to be seated at the restaurant. Are they sunglass, t-shirt, hiking boot and fanny pack wearing tourists? They are just as clueless about what restaurants are best in this city as you are! Unless it is a highly rated restaurant in a travel book (which would explain the high volume of tourists) avoid these restaurants. Seek out a restaurant that seems to attract a largely local clientele– maybe a place that is frequented by workers during lunch breaks. This pattern signifies not only better quality food but also much more appealing prices.
Keep an eye out for identical food menus between restaurants.
When hiking through Italy, my friends and I began to notice an astounding amount of cafes with identical menus hung from their windows. The variety of pasta offered was impressive for such small cafes, boasting gnocchi with pesto, penne, alfredo, and meatballs. We were famished and decided to stop at one of the cafes to give the pasta a try. What a mistake! It turns out that all of the menus were identical because the pasta was frozen, and provided to the cafes by the same frozen food company (which also provided the window-front menus.) It seems obvious now, without hunger clouding my logic– where would these quaint cafes hide kitchens large enough to prepare such a variety of food? The gnocchi with pesto and the lasagna that we ordered both tasted distinctly freezer-burnt, and we were able to finish only a few bites. Lesson learned!